I worry that a society that ceases to marvel at the actions of daredevils is in danger.  Though their moral calculus is not always straightforward and though I have no wish to imitate such actors, I view them at the end of the current year with new eyes. We should watch, listen, and ask if they have anything to teach us.

Saints and prophets are key figures for any ecosystem, but it’s a bad idea to assume you are one. When it comes to St. Francis of Assisi throwing furniture back into a burning building because “brother fire” is hungry or the prophet Hosea marrying a prostitute because his relationship will symbolize that of the faithful God and his unfaithful Israel, I think we can all say that these people are best admired but not imitated. After all, the line between sanctity and prophecy, on the one hand, and stupid, on the other, can sometimes be pretty difficult to pinpoint.

I have never been a particularly courageous person. I have never ridden motorcycles, drag raced, skydived, parasailed, bungee-jumped, walked on a tight rope over the height of 18 inches, juggled chainsaws, or climbed up the side of a building with or without equipment. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a complete coward. I eat Romaine lettuce despite the E. coli recalls that seem to be issued every 72 hours. I ride a bicycle around without a helmet as long as I’m not on a busy road. My seat belt doesn’t always get buckled on short trips.

But when it comes to the other activities, my own response has often been one of both incomprehension and moral judgment. Incomprehension because I don’t have any real desires to do these things, and thus the idea that they would be worth the risk of a significant good, much less death or severe injury, seems highly suspect. Moral judgment because like most people I find it easier to be judgmental about other people’s interests and activities than my own. I have habitually supported my views by asking what benefit the human species or any particular community derives from such activities that justifies them. I don’t think my question is a bad one, but it may well be that I have not been thinking broadly enough about what society needs.

I think if I had viewed them in 2019, my reaction to two recent films, James Mangold’s sports film Ford v Ferrari (2019) and Jimmy Chin’s documentary Free Solo (2018), would have been the kind of spiritually dubious delight in the vicarious thrills I sometimes get from other people’s risks while simultaneously justifying my lofty moral condemnation of their behavior. Heads I win the thrills; tails they lose to my exalted moral standpoint.

Because it is 2020, I have watched as approaches to risk by governments and parts of society have developed such that a virus with over a 99-percent survival rate for everybody up to the age of 70 (after which it’s about a 95% survival rate) justifies the elimination of all sorts of activities that might (on a generous reading) spread the virus unnecessarily. Depending on your state and local government, dangerous behaviors such as eating turkey with the neighbors, attending church with more than ten people (though not strip clubs—thanks, California!), or attending grade school in person are verboten. With these legal prohibitions and many more of even less rationality in mind, I watched the movies with less guilty pleasure, less moral judgment, and more admiration for the real-life figures being depicted and documented.

Ford v Ferrari is a quintessential sports film combining several clichés in a fashion guaranteed to make it popular but dangerous artistically in that the potential for drowning in emotional syrup is high: the David-and-Goliath battle, the buddy movie in which two people with different gifts and personalities come together to play the part of David, and the internal battle against team insiders who both want our team to fail and also want to claim the credit for any success. The film manages to provide tears without jerking them. Based on the true story of American car designer Carroll Shelby and British race car driver Ken Miles, the film shows us how a young Lee Iacocca, then at Ford, wants Ford to produce a car that could compete in the famous 24-hour auto race at Le Mans, where the Italian Ferrari company has dominated. Iacocca recruits the financially-teetering Carroll, who in turn recruits the abrasive Miles to help him design what would be the GT-40 to defeat Ferrari. The drama is created both by internal opposition to the project within Ford but also to the danger involved in racing. In the middle of preparation, Miles is test-driving the car when it experiences what is known as “brake fade” and crashes. He is nearly killed in front of his young son who has been watching. They persist, however, and end up winning Le Mans despite early problems with the door to the car. Well, they sort of win. I won’t spoil the movie by telling you the end of the race, which involves triumphs of driving and of character. Theses triumphs are tempered, however, by the vision of Miles fatally crashing a new vehicle during a test drive while Shelby watches.

Was Miles’s death worth it? For what? Corporate glory? Science? American pride? His own pride? Pushing human achievements to the limit?

Free Solo does not include the death of its main character, but it is a story shadowed by the nearly inevitable deaths of those hardy souls who climb up mountains without assistance or ropes. Alex Honnold was the first man to free solo El Capitan. The documentary follows him over the period of time before his historic June 2017 feat. The film shows him both before and after getting a girlfriend with whom he cohabits. While admiring him, she clearly wants him to stop and marry her. He seems to consider her a somewhat distant second in life to his desire to climb. Others have noted that this seems to point to the necessity of celibacy for certain vocations—he clearly thinks his girlfriend comes second in his life in the film, though he did marry her in 2020. (True, a spouse is not the only person to whom we might have an obligation that requires us to change our activities, but a spouse certainly ranks high.) While I think this a plausible argument, as with race car driving and many other sports that can become careers, the question still remains whether such dangerous activities are worth it absent a vital societal need whether one has a spouse, a potential spouse, or no thought of marriage.

Philosopher Michael Pakaluk worried in a way similar to my pre-2020-attitude that “we marvel—our culture marvels—at free soloing, rather than finding it despicable, because we are a drawn to the ideal of autonomy, even a foolhardy autonomy, which risks everything for projects that have no value beyond being the creation of someone’s will.”[*] I still have that worry. That Mr. Honnold is neither religious nor a philosopher seems evident from the film. When the questions of the ethics of his chosen activity come up (sometimes with reference to his girlfriend), the framework for his thinking is whether he is obligated to “maximize his lifespan.” That formulation in itself shows the problem we have with thinking about risk. I do not think anybody thinks that “maximization of lifespan” is an absolute duty or even a goal unless there are some serious caveats attached to the phrase.

But it shows the false alternatives we are faced with today. Is free soloing El Capitan worth it? Is racing a car faster than thought possible worth it? Perhaps they are not, but given our societal tendency to treat biological life as an absolute—to use “if it saves one life” as justification for eliminating freedom to make choices about risk assessment because some will make bad ones—I worry that a society that ceases to marvel at free soloing and race car driving is also in danger. I do not quite buy Mr. Honnold’s understanding of his chosen activity as part of the warrior ethos, but his desire for excellence in and of itself strikes me as having something liberal about it that contradicts the servile approach to risk, in which every risk must have some sort of quantified positive outcome for society.

Like basic research, done simply to understand how things work, the pursuit of excellence-at-great-risk with hands and feet or steering wheels might lead to something great that neither we nor even the participants can see. Were Wilbur and Orville Wright’s dangerous experiments in flight worth it? Were the explorers’ adventures worth it? Those of astronauts? Human beings don’t live to avoid risk. They avoid risks or take them in order to live. Though their moral calculus is not always straightforward and though I have no wish to imitate such actors, I view them at the end of 2020 with new eyes.

Behold the prophets of risky business. In the end, some of their risks may be worth taking whereas others are not. But before we make this judgment, we should first watch, listen, and ask if they have anything to teach us.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

* Michael Pakaluk, “The Free Solo Way of Life,” The Catholic Thing (February 2019).

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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